Sibling researchers team up in the laboratory and prepare to see where their interests in food science lead as their undergraduate years wind down.
by Rachel Pierce
It’s not often that you’ll find two siblings working together in a laboratory. Even more exceptional is encountering a sister and a brother who collaborate so well as Katelyn and Graysen Ortega.
Katelyn, 20, and Graysen, 21, are seniors in the food science program of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. During their time at Texas Tech, the duo has logged countless hours working in the laboratory for the International Center for Food Industry Excellence (ICFIE). In fact, the Lubbock-area natives could easily call the lab at Texas Tech their second home.
Just a few years ago the pair attended Frenship High School in Wolfforth, where they were involved in an assortment of activities, but chief among these was Future Farmers of America (FFA). The organization is well recognized for supporting agricultural education in middle and high school grade levels throughout the U.S. To promote interest in agricultural science and technology, the organization hosts the FFA Agriscience Fair, a competition that allows students to present their scientific research projects in areas such as animal systems, food products and processing systems, and plant systems.
Graysen said competing in the fairs at both the state and national levels ignited his interest in food science and helped him to find a valuable mentor in food safety and microbiology, professor Mindy Brashears, who leads ICFIE.
“My ag teacher introduced me to Dr. Mindy Brashears, and she mentored me in several Agriscience Fair projects,” he said. “Senior year, my agriscience team won the national competition.”
With that significant accomplishment to his name, Graysen was encouraged to pursue a food science degree at Texas Tech by Brashears and animal nutrition professor Kevin Pond. Graysen admitted that despite excelling in FFA, he was not convinced that a science degree was for him, but Brashears’ resoluteness on issues regarding coursework and undergraduate research opportunities eased his concerns, ultimately helping him to declare food science as his major.
In 2013 the Texas Tech University provost named food science undergraduate student Graysen Ortega a Student of Integrated Scholarship. He earned a place in this distinguished group for his commitment to academic excellence and involvement in active learning experiences.
Read his Student of Integrated Scholarship profile here.
Katelyn followed Graysen’s lead, participating in FFA and competing in Agriscience Fairs as a high school student. Like Graysen, she also benefitted from Brashears’ mentorship and was immediately taken with the study of agriscience.
“My first agriscience project was working with possible antibiotic resistance in cattle due to their diets,” Katelyn said. “I was hooked. I had absolutely no idea that food science was a major until I worked on an agriscience project.”
When it came time for Katelyn to consider higher education programs, she followed her brother into the food science program, adding that Texas Tech was the only university she considered attending.
“My father graduated from Texas Tech, and my mom has worked for Texas Tech for 25 years,” she said. “I was born a Red Raider and practically grew up on the Texas Tech campus. I could not imagine going to school anywhere else.”
Brashears said she has been impressed with the Ortegas’ commitment to food science, beginning with their high school agriscience fairs. She added that their strong work ethic has supported their development as scientists.
“I have been very fortunate to work with Graysen and Katelyn,” she said. “Both of them achieved high success through the agriscience fair, working to solve issues related to food science, specifically food safety. Because of their experience as young teenagers in the lab, they have already excelled as undergraduate research scholars in our lab, as well.”
Blazing a Path
Graysen began his studies and laboratory work at Texas Tech in fall 2010, a year ahead of his sister. From the beginning, he was determined to establish himself as an undergraduate researcher.
“Conducting my own research was something that interested me, and I made it a goal early on,” Graysen said. “From the day I started working in the lab, I started working toward getting my own research project.”
Starting out, Graysen took care of housekeeping tasks in the lab, including cleaning dishes and making media, which is the substance that bacteria cultures form upon in a petri dish. Over time he had the opportunity to assist graduate students and lab technicians, in order to gain experience on a variety of projects. Nowadays he devotes most of his time in the lab to researching the prevalence of an E. coli strain found in beef from Mexico.
“I was able to work on a lot of exciting projects, and then Dr. Brashears gave me an incredible project that I could run myself,” he said. “I was able to conduct a small preliminary study on this project to help develop a protocol. I was able to present that study and placed third at the Institute of Food Technologists Undergraduate Research Competition.”
This past summer Graysen presented his research at the annual meeting of the International Association of Food Protection in North Carolina. The event brings together more than 2,500 food safety professionals working in industry, academia and for government agencies.
“It is great to have your sibling working with you because you always have someone to depend on.”
– Katelyn Ortega
Aside from attending out-of-state conferences to present his findings, Graysen travels to Mexico about four times a year to collect samples for his research. Processing the samples consumes a few weeks of his time when he returns to Lubbock. Still, he noted that the experiences gained through his research have been well worth the commitment.
“Research is definitely a full-time job, but it is completely worth it,” he said. “There are a number of ways to enrich your time at TTU, but I believe working on research is one of the, if not the, best. I would try and convince everyone to give research a shot but warn that it isn’t for the faint of heart. It is a lot of work, but it is worth it. People just need to find the research outlet that matches them. It could be working in a lab, working in a field or collecting data in forests. I thoroughly believe that there is something for everyone.”
Graysen and Katelyn can oftentimes be seen working side by side in the lab.
When Graysen is working at the bench, Katelyn is oftentimes at his side, making media, streaking plates, and labeling petri dishes and test tubes for her brother’s work. She explained that because Graysen began working in the ICFIE lab a year before she did, he was instrumental in helping her to attain a position there. Graysen also trained his sister to work in the lab environment, so by the time his individual research work began, Katelyn was able to step in and lend her support. She acknowledged that their work shifts can last for several hours and sometimes lead to exhaustion, but she noted that’s where their strength as a family unit lies.
“It is great to have your sibling working with you because you always have someone to depend on,” Katelyn said. “No matter what, if I am feeling overwhelmed with my project or media, I can just call my brother, and he is right there for me. I do the same for him. We truly depend on each other.”
In addition to Graysen’s project, Katelyn has been increasingly occupied with her own research, which involves determining a baseline for the bacterium Campylobacter spp., which is found in beef and typically leads to food poisoning. She has not made any research-related excursions, however, they are on the horizon as she focuses more fully on her individual project.
The Texas Tech University/Howard Hughes Medical Institute (TTU/HHMI) Undergraduate Research Program at the Center for the Integration of STEM Education & Research (CISER) funds both Katelyn and Graysen’s research projects. The program has enabled the Ortegas to work in the ICFIE lab year-round with professor Brashears as their mentor, as well as given them opportunities to present their findings. Additionally, they are compensated for their time with a stipend.
More than any other extracurricular activity or organization she has been part of, Katelyn said her involvement as a TTU/HHMI undergraduate research scholar has afforded her valuable learning opportunities and continued to sustain her zeal for agriscience.
“I have done the work in the lab and produced something that affects people’s lives,” she said. “Participating in food safety research has given me something to be passionate about. What I am doing affects more than just me. It affects our population, and the safety of our food supply.”
So what lies in store for these two?
Graysen is on track to graduate in December. He anticipates that his research will be published following graduation and plans to continue his education by attending law school. Graysen hopes to become a lawyer practicing in the areas of food safety and agriculture.
Katelyn also is graduating in December, and she intends to continue her education in a food science master’s program. Food safety is central to her career plans. Once she completes her education, Katelyn aims to find employment with a food processing facility, however, she remains open to other opportunities as they present themselves.
Reflecting on years of mentorship in the laboratory, Brashears noted that Graysen and Katelyn’s research collaboration has guided them to begin developing professional lives that are influenced by their shared experiences and supportive of their distinct interests.
“While they are a wonderful brother-and-sister duo, they both have very individual and unique attributes,” Brashears said. “The most enjoyable aspect of working with both of them has been watching them grow from quite inexperienced teens into confident scientists who will make a tremendous impact on the world in separate but important areas.”
As a side note, this likely will not be the last we hear of the Ortegas. One of Graysen and Katelyn’s younger brothers, Paden, also has a keen interest in agriscience and has been heavily involved in FFA. Though he is only 16, Paden hopes to attend Texas Tech, like his older brother and sister. And so, this may just be the beginning of the Ortega family dynasty.
More About TTU/HHMI Undergraduate Research Scholar Program
The TTU/HHMI Undergraduate Research Scholar Program is part of the Center for the Integration of STEM Education & Research at Texas Tech University. The center was established in 1992 through funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The research experience benefits undergraduate students with the following possible opportunities:
- Earning money while gaining valuable career-related science, technology and science education experiences
- Working year-round or during the summer with mentor faculty in scientific research labs
- Involvement in service projects with other undergraduate students
- Publishing in peer-reviewed journals before graduation
- Traveling and presenting at state, national and international scientific meetings
International Center for Food Industry Excellence (ICFIE)
The International Center for Food Industry Excellence (ICFIE) is a collaborative center that brings together faculty from the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and the College of Human Sciences. The center’s areas of emphasis include pre- and post-harvest food safety, value-added processing, nutrition, and outreach and education. The center’s director is food microbiology and food safety professor Mindy Brashears.
Meet the Researcher
Mindy Brashears is a professor of food microbiology and food safety in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, as well as director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University. Her research focuses on interventions in pre- and post-harvest environments and on the emergence of antimicrobial drug resistance primarily in meat and poultry products. Her work has resulted in the commercialization of pre-harvest feed additives that reduce E. coli and Salmonella in cattle.
Rachel Pierce is Senior Editor of Research and Academic Communications for the Office of the Provost at Texas Tech University. Photos courtesy of Neal Hinkle. Video by Scott Irlbeck.